The Sandžak is an ethnically-mixed Muslim-Slav (Bosniak) majority region of Serbia sandwiched between Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia. Its economy is underdeveloped and far poorer than many other regions in Serbia, partly because it was an Ottoman backwater until 1912, partly due to deliberate neglect by Serbian authorities between the world wars and under Milošević. Some people refer to the Sandžak somewhat ominously as the “Bermuda Triangle of the Balkans”. People, they say, have been known to disappear here without a trace.
Christian Serbs are wary of the Sandžak and the Muslims here. I was warned against coming here by Serbs.
“The Sandžak is totally in the hands of the Muslims,” one Serb of my acquaintance said, hoping to steer me away. “The whole ambience of Novi Pazar is Eastern. The architecture, the clothing, everything. They don’t serve pork in the restaurants. You can’t get a decent drink anywhere, the women are covered, the local mufti even has his own faculty of Islamic studies at the university. There are Islamic day-care centers. It’s total indoctrination. It’s never been like it is now. What they want is autonomy from Serbia so they can form an Islamic federation with Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia. We Serbs feel like foreigners there.”
The inhabitants of the Sandžak are in essence Bosniaks – the name for the Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia – but even people from Bosnia regard them as a breed apart. Among former Yugoslavians, people from the Sandžak have the reputation of being hot-headed and hard-nosed. Abroad, the Sandžak mafia is much feared and respected, with a loyalty rivaling even the notoriously close-knit Albanians.
Much has been made lately of the resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism in the Sandžak. There is no doubt that Wahhabism, the Saudi sect which insists on a strict interpretation of the Koran, has been making inroads here (as it has in the Balkans in general), and its influence is disruptive. Two years ago a group of Wahhabi youth in distinctive beards and short pants broke up a concert by the Serbian ethno rock group Balkanika in the Sandžak town of Novi Pazar, proclaiming the music “satanic”. There have been rows in local mosques, with Wahhabis disturbing the prayers of moderate believers and there have even been shootouts. A year ago a terrorist cell was broken up in the mountains outside of Novi Pazar and a cache of weapons found. Apparently the intended target of the terrorists was moderate Muslims in Novi Pazar.
And the Sandžak has problems with organized crime. In the eighties there was a fairly prosperous textile industry in Novi Pazar, with jeans being made for export abroad. The industry has since fallen on hard times, with the result that people have turned to more illicit means of acquiring wealth. Today Novi Pazar is a frontier town awash in dirty money. Heroin from Turkey comes over the hills from Kosovo and Montenegro by mule and is channeled to destinations west. There is also an illicit trade in weapons. Several hotels in town are obvious sources of laundered money.
But all this doesn’t manage to diminish the charm of Novi Pazar and the Sandžak. In many ways Novi Pazar has a more oriental feel than even Sarajevo. The city of one hundred thousand has been called the Damascus of the West. It has a very distinctive old Turkish bazaar quarter, a very fine Turkish mosque built in the sixteenth century, and some of the most curious modern architecture in the Balkans, a hybrid style, wrought out of a bizarre attempt to blend Socialist Realism with Oriental forms. The result is a strange kind of Thousand And One Nights Oriental Futurism. The Novi Pazar bus station and the Hotel Vrbak (“think UFO meets magic mushrooms, dolled up in nouveau-cement” – Lonely Planet), the biggest hotel in town, are fine examples. Novi Pazar is a marvelous place; an unreal place; and I still can’t quite make it out – the city, though part of Serbia, is more Baghdad than Belgrade.
There is something very strange and wonderful about the kind of life that goes on in this forgotten, pulsing frontier town, intensely provincial and yet bustling and lively at the same time. In the summer the hot sun beats down on the dusty streets. There are Muslim women in headscarves and men with beards selling Islamic literature. Along the bridge leading to the Turkish quarter Gypsies sell cheap wares and tapestries of Mecca. Green fringed Islamic obituary notices are taped to lamp posts. Close-shorn, able-bodied youths hang out outside the Altun-alem mosque while elderly Muslim men in black berets sit drinking coffee in small, aromatic cafes next to butcher shops with smoked helal sausages hanging on hooks from the rafters, and clothing shops featuring models dressed in headscarves and boys wearing the traditional cape and headpiece of the sunnet ceremony.
I am thinking about the women. The blond, blue eyed girls in the hijab. The physiognomy doesn’t fit with the exotic attire. It’s like fancy dress. It doesn’t jibe, like Islam in the Balkans, like a mosque in a lush green mountain setting. That’s the allure of Novi Pazar, Sandžak, the Balkans.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Bosnian war, the Muslim Party for Democratic Action, the SDA, met in Novi Pazar for a rally with Alija Izetbegović, head of the SDA and future president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was the first time that the SDA profiled itself as a religious Muslim party, appealing to thehodžas of Bosnia and the Sandžak for support but alienating more religiously moderate members. Green Islamic banners proclaiming “God is Great” and Suadi Arabian flags filled the Novi Pazar football stadium, signs of Islamic fundamentalism manifested themselves for the first time in the history of Yugoslavia. People wore djellabas and caftans and other items of Arab dress, which no one had ever worn in Bosnia and the Sandžak before. People gave speeches quoting suras from the Koran.
Adil Zulfikarpašić, the moderate co-founder of the SDA, who later split with Alija Izetbegović over the direction the party was headed, commented that he feltagents provocteurs were involved, trying to stoke up Serb fears. “It looked for all the world like a rally in Egypt or Algeria,” recalled Zulfikarpašić. “And then of course, Belgrade journalists jumped on such groups and took photos.”
While the war was going on in Bosnia, the Sandžak remained unscathed. Nevertheless, ethnic tension was rife and police intimidation was reported. Football matches between Novi Pazar
and teams from Serb towns were the occasion of racial
taunting and anti-Muslim slogans, such as the famous, “Nož i žica
Srebrenica” (Knife, barbed-wire, Srebrenica). Some 60,000 to 80,000 Bosniaks emigrated during this period, many heading to Sweden and Germany.
Today ten busses leave every day from Novi Pazar bus station to Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Some NGOs calculate that every Saturday between 500 to 1,000 people leave the Sandžak for Western Europe, many for good.
Throughout the Sandžak the economic situation is catastrophic. Every fourth person is unemployed in Novi Pazar. Many families are living on the brink of poverty. Many are learning German in preperation for a hopeful new life abroad. Politicians bemoan the exodus, but do nothing to keep Bosniaks from going. Meanwhile, Germany says that all asylum seekers trying to get into the country from the Sandžak will be returned.
I came to Novi Pazar to visit Meho (everyone from the Sandžak, it seems, is named Meho or has a brother named Meho). Meho was a Muslim boxer in a gym I sometimes went to in Berlin’s Schöneberg kiez. When I first met him I took him for Russian.
“I’m in better shape than you because I fast for Ramadan,” he said.
I knew then that Meho was a Muslim from the Sandžak.
“Novi Pazar?” I said.
“Novi Pazar!” Meho gushed. “What women! Best women in the world, eh? But don’t touch!”
I told Meho I would be going down to Novi Pazar in the summer. He gave me his mobile number.
“Come to Novi Pazar!” exclaimed Meho, “We will eat ćevapčići together. I’ll bring you to my house and I’ll slaughter a lamb for you!”
I came to Novi Pazar en route from Montenegro. The bus ride lasted all night. I slept badly, jostled violently as the bus wound its way through the Montenegrin mountains. By a stroke of luck I woke up just as the bus pulled into Novi Pazar at four in the morning. I was let off on the outskirts of town, on the edges of the old Turkish bazaar quarter. The whole town was asleep, the only sound the barking of stray dogs. The cold mountain climate was a marked change from the soothing Mediterranean temperatures of Montenegro, and walking past low-slung, one-storey, clay-shingled Turkish houses with odds-and-ends shops full of all manner of wares and cheap boutiques with blond, blue-eyed mannequins dressed in exotic, Turkish sequined dresses, I shivered in my t-shirt and shorts.
My plan was to while away several hours in a café and then to give Meho a call at seven. However, this Muslim town was far from being a nightlife hot-spot and the only place I found with a light on was a bakery where two Albanians sat eating spaghetti bolegnese in the window.
They were two brothers from Prizren in Kosovo and they were the first Albanians I had ever met. I recalled all the foolish stories Serbs told about Albanians. Of course, as most Albanians, and most people from the Balkans, these two brothers were incredibly straight and kind and hospitable and generous. They treated me to sweetbread and yogurt, and after I had given up my idea of waiting out the night and instead decided upon the option of finding a hotel, one of them offered to take me to a place he knew.
The Albanian told about Novi Pazar and Kosovo as we walked through the dead, dingy streets of this incredibly strange town, populated at five in the morning only by packs of mangy stray dogs, which importuned us in the half-lit streets. The Albanian stamped his foot and shouted in Turkish, “Hajdi git!” and the dogs slunk off.
The Albanian left me off at a hotel that probably a front for laundered money. There could be no more of a contrast than this swank designer hotel in these dusty backwater surroundings. The furniture looked like something from Phillip Stark and there was blue neon everywhere. Predictably they didn’t take credit cards, and I ended up walking through the silence of sleeping Novi Pazar till I found other quarters in a more characteristic hole in the wall situated in a former Turkish han, or inn.
Hans in Ottoman times were dismal places, by all accounts, rotten shanties, bug infested, windowless chambers where travelers bedded down on piles of straw, where in the Ottoman empire the traveler was entitled to reside for three days free of charge, supplied with garlic, cheese, olives and a nasty bottle of Greek wine.
This old han was called Hotel Kan (Cannes). There was a casino in the basement, a stuffed crocodile behind the reception desk, next to a hamster on a treadmill. My room was the height of kitsch. I looked out the window and saw a Gypsy trubači band jamming under the eaves of the oriental-socialist hotel across the way. I went to sleep to the sound of a minaret calling the faithful to prayer, a weird, unearthly music, long and lingering, as if I had been translated to the streets of Tehran. “Allahu Akbar…Allahu Akbar…”
Or in the words of writer Pierre Loti who lived a long time in Istanbul : “In the middle of ‘serene silence a voice suddenly raised, wonderfully sonorous, having something of the heavenly purity and church organs… coming as in sleep and dreams, echoing to Muslim believers in all four corners immortal melodies that for centuries five times a day hovered over Turkish cities and landscape, symbolizing the whole religion , peaceful, proud, mystic.”
And then it was quiet again. Except for the dogs.
While the nights are cold, the days are hot in the Sandžak, and the next day when I ventured outside the sun beat down remorselessly on the dusty streets, the heat blazing up my nostrils into my head like an oven. Around me Bosniak men in black berets and blond, blue-eyed Muslim women in headscarves went about their business on streets lined with typical Turkish houses occupied by aromatic coffee shops and butchers smelling like blood where helal sausage hung on hooks in shop windows. It was a market day and Gypsies had laid out their wares on the bridge over the rubbish-strewn river, displaying cheap plastic sunglasses next to tapestries of Mecca while folk music floated out of Muslim kafanas. In an Islamic bookshop in the Turkish quarter I perused book with a dragon clutching an American flag wrapping its scaly tail around the globe.
I punched in Meho’s number, but his mobile was off. So looking for a way to while away a couple of hours I came upon a poster advertising a “Boks meč” on the outskirts of town. Sandžakians are good boxers and I was eager to see a bit of action, so I took a cab out to the edge of town past the Turkish quarter to catch this boxing match at a local gym.
Along the way I spoke to the driver about Marko Huck, the Sandžak’s Great White Hope and rising star on the international boxing scene. Huck lived in Berlin, grew up in Bielefeld, but was born in Novi Pazar, where everyone knows him as Muamir Hukić, the name he was born with. He had had 21 fights and 21 wins when a couple months previously he came up against an American in a bout for the title of world champion in the cruiser division, and he suffered a bitter defeat.
Despite his recent loss, according to my cab driver, Marko, the “Sandžak Bomber” was “making Sandžak big”.
“TV stations are always calling Marko up wanting him to come down here, but he hasn’t been back for four years, partly because he wants to avoid being conscripted into the Serbian military. Still, perhaps after his next fight he will come to Novi Pazar, where you can be sure he will get a hero’s welcome.”
Still, there was some controversy about Marko. Some said he was too hot-headed for a boxer and criticized his “Sandžak head” and wild street-fighter style. Others resented the fact that he seemed to be denying his Bosniak identity by fighting under a German name. Still others, maintained that he wasn’t Bosniak at all, but Albanian.
“That’s nonsense,” said my cab driver. “A lot of people want a good man for themselves. But Marko is 100 percent Sandžak. I knew his father. He was a bricklayer in Ugao.”
At the sports hall an old man sat at the entrance with a mound of glazed peanuts, scooping his confection into paper cones. Inside, excited Bosniaks – families of them – were seated around a ring above which hung the Sandžak flag, with the coat of arms of the Bosniaks, featuring three crescent moons and three fleurs de lilles on a blue and green background. A half-wit spastic kid in a baseball cap walked around the ring wringing his fists at the spectators, who threw peanuts at him. The boxing matches began. The best was a thin and agile wild-buck Gypsy hot-cat with fine aquiline looks and long whiplash arms. The audience heckled him, hooting and jeering and shouting racist slogans. The Gypsy won hands down, but the taunting from the audience had so incensed him that before the referee managed to raise his hand proclaiming him the victor, he tore his gloves off, jumped out of the ring and went after some of the more vocal hecklers. It was a great source of fun, like bear bating.
Having still not managed to get in touch with Meho I decided to head off for a three day hike into the Sandžak countryside. I made my way out of town, past ramshackle grocery shops, burek joints, lots selling probably stolen German cars. New mosques were being built and packs of mangy stray dogs sauntered through weedy cemeteries full of Muslim gravestones sticking up at odd, screwy angles like darts in a dartboard. An hour out of town, I entered the hills, where leisurely Novi Pazarans lay on blankets in the cool shade beside a dirty river getting a bit of respite from the summer heat. The road climbed upwards past crude cottages until I came to the monastery of Sopoćani, where black bearded Serbian monks sat under wooden eaves painting icons while another chanted psalms.
Not all the inhabitants of Novi Pazar and the Sandžak are Muslim. There are Serbs here as well. In fact, the Serbs have another name for the Sandžak. They call it Raška, which in the early eleventh century was the center of the first Serbian state. Nationalist Serbs stubbornly cling to the old word Raška rather than Sandžak. Here was the seat of old Serbia and the region is full of Serbian monuments, churches and monasteries dating from the Middle Ages.
Here in the Sandžak and in Bosnia the Četniks were involved in bloody inter-ethnic strife with the Muslims during the Second World War. Četnik leader Draža Mihailović spoke about an “ethnically pure” Greater Serbia and about the need for “cleansing the Muslim population from the Sandžak”.
Fifteen kilometers west of Novi Pazar, nestled in the mountains is medieval Sopoćani monastery with its famous frescos. It takes several hours to walk to Sopoćani from Novi Pazar. Around seven kilometers out of town you leave behind the hot and dusty valley in which Novi Pazar sits and the landscape becomes quite beautiful. Children from Novi Pazar come out here to ride their bikes down the steep road which leads into town and they often approached me, eager to show off their knowledge of English. One assumes they are Muslim, and indeed the children have Muslim names, but they are all familiar with the Serbian monastery and are full of tips about other Christian sights in and around Novi Pazar. Older Sandžakians may be more distanced towards Serbian culture here and may appear somewhat put off by the tourist who comes to the Sandžak expressly to see the traces of old Raška. But it has to be said, with the exception of a very fine mosque and Turkish bath in Novi Pazar, the decisive architectural monuments in the Sandžak are all Serbian, and of all of them Sopoćani is the finest.
Something has to be said about the role that monasteries play in the life of the Serbian people. In contrast to the old medieval churches and cathedrals in Western Europe, which are more tourist attractions than places of living faith, Serbian monasteries are places of pilgrimage held with deep affection by Serbian people, and the visitor from abroad who comes to a monastery like Sopoćani with the desire to see frescos from an art historical point of view may be coldly rebuffed. “This is not a museum”, you are told. Lately a move by the Serbian tourism bureau to make Serbian monasteries attractive to foreign tourists was met with protests by the Serbian Orthodox church, which wants to preserve the spiritual aspect of these places.
As luck would have it, I arrived at Sopoćani the day of a Sava, or saint’s day, and I drifted into the church and wedged myself into the standing congregation of farming people. The floors of the church were strewn with palm sprigs and there was a constant to and fro of worshippers carrying Sava cakes to be consumed at the end of mass. Unlike a Catholic mass, worshipers in an Orthodox church remain standing during the service. There are no pews for sitting. Worshippers come and go as they please, touching the floor and crossing themselves, kissing icons, lighting candles and asking the priest to intercede for them.
Inside the church grounds, a wooden knocker hangs between two pilasters dating from the days of the Turkish occupation when the Turks forbade the ringing of bells. So, to summon the faithful to prayer they used this wooden knocker. Inside the church a woman crosses herself three times and kisses an icon. A monk reads from the bible. The church is dark and peaceful, the frescos luminous.
As with every monastery in Serbia, Sopoćani has an adjoining guesthouse or hotel for pilgrims. Sopoćani hotel is a beautiful place, built of stone and wood in the sixties, though in an old Serbian style. I walked through the empty dining rooms furnished with dark wood tables and chairs into the sunny garden and took a seat at a table.
A gentle breeze wafts up the valley through the pines. Several people sit drinking beer. It is very peaceful and would be a fine thing to spend the night here or settle and write for ages. These monastery hotels are in my experience beautifully appointed and ridiculously cheap. The waiter brought chilled Jelen beer, tender, grilled veal and shopska salad.
I reluctantly set off and continued on up the road which wound its way upwards beyond the monastery, turning almost as soon as it left the monastery to dirt. Graffiti advertising the SDA, the Muslim party, covered a ruin on the roadside. There was a beautiful view of the valley I had come from. Farmers, taking a break from hay-making, sat on blankets under plum trees. A car pulled up and a man asked me if I would like a ride. I thanked him; I was quite happy walking. The road became paved again; it leveled out. I met two country boys on a motorcycle who pulled up next to me and engaged me in a conversation. One pointed to a farmhouse. There was a girl there who was very beautiful.
“Good for a fuck,” he said.
“What about her father?” I said.
“He’s Muslim,” said the boy. “Don’t cross him.”
He said if I was looking for a place to spend the night I should go to the next village, and he and pointed to a small cluster of houses next to a huge mosque, the minarets of which looked from the distance like factory towers. “You will find a hotel there.”
I thought this seemed fairly unlikely. Nevertheless, I made my way to the next village, a lonely crossroads on the edge of an upland plain. It was beautiful there. The only cars that came by were farmers’ cars; they gave me suspicious looks as they clanked aong. The cows were coming home. I was parched. Anything would do, but a beer would be nice. Initially I had been sensitive about ordering alcohol in the Sandžak, unwilling to offend local Muslim mores. But after a couple of days I could see that alcohol was only shunned by the very religious and that Sandžak men drank like the best of them.
I found a peculiar little shop, a rickety store of some kind that sold groceries and gas and was fronted by a congregation of country boys drinking Jelen beer. People would pull up in their cars and the attendant would fill up a plastic canister of gas. It was the first sign of civilization I had seen since leaving Sopoćani.
“Do you know anyone in Sandžak?” one of the boys asked, wondering why a foreigner had come all the way out here alone.
I thought of Meho from the box club in Berlin.
“I know one person,” I said. “He comes from near Novi Pazar. His name is Meho.” And then for some inexplicable reason I took out my mobile and showed him the number.
The man took a look at it, and then he said, quite flabbergasted, “That’s my brother, jebi ga! Think how the word is small! I will call him now.”
He took out his mobile and excitedly called his brother. Fifteen minutes later Meho pulled up in his silver Mercedes with German plates, coming to a dusty flying stop in front of the station. He was delighted to see me. I would spend the night at his house that night. I got in his car and we sped off through the village, Meho pointing along the way at various newly built houses on a slope overlooking the road. This house belonged to his brother, another house to another brother, another house to a cousin. The whole clan seemed to live on that slope.
Meho’s house was a new structure overlooking a barn for cattle and a couple big fields which also belonged to Meho. The floors of the house were laid with oriental carpets and there were gilt ayet from the Koran on the wall, a calendar that advertised something in Turkish, some family photographs. Meho had four children, a seven year old daughter and three sons, aged four, three and one and a half.
“They speak German,” said Meho.
“Wie alt bist du?” I asked one of the boys.
He put of three fingers, Serbian style. “Drei,” he said.
But Meho didn’t approve. He was not to count with his thumb. That was the Serbian salute, and they were Muslims. Meho corrected the boy.
Meho’s mother, an elderly woman with a headscarf brought out thesofra (round table for eating on the floor) and laid it with beef from a freshly slaughtered cow, goat cheese fresh from the farm,kajmak, peppers and Turkish coffee. A couple more brothers came who salamed Meho.
“Salam alajkum,” they said.
“Alajkum salam,” enjoined Meho.
I spoke with one of the brothers in German. He lived in Hamburg and had paid two thousand euro to have himself smuggled across the border to Germany from the Czech Republic. Once in Germany he appealed for political asylum. He was a Bosniak and the Serbs were killing Bosniaks in Bosnia.
“But not in the Sandžak,” I said.
“No matter,” he said. “They gave me asylum anyway.”
We spoke about the war. It didn’t touch the people here directly, but it was their brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles who were affected, and Bosnia was just a couple of mountain ranges away.
“But, ma’shallah, God sees everything,” said the brother. “God and satellites.”
We ate and drank and watched wedding videos. The videos were of the wedding of one of Meho’s brothers. It was in traditional Sandžak Muslim style, the bride wearing a dress decorated with golden ducats, the wedding protocol elaborate, with traditional Bosniak folk music and firearms, which were discharged into the air. Grandma sat on the sofa, thoughtfully picking her teeth.
Outside Meho showed me his gun, a Skorpion nine millimeter. I took it in my hands.
“Careful,” cautioned Meho. “It’s loaded.”
I had never held a loaded gun in my hand before and it scared me even to hold it.
Meho explained that he used the gun at weddings, firing off a volley of two hundred rounds. He was a passionate shot and now and then he would blast a vulture from the sky out of boredom.
“Give it a go,” he urged.
I took the gun in my hand, held it high in the air, pulled the trigger, firing off a couple of rounds as the gun jumped in my hands. Blam, blam, blam.
That night I slept beautifully and the next morning we looked round the farm, at the cows, some sheep, chickens, the wolf-like guard dog chained to its kennel (“Very dangerous,” Meho assured me) and repaired to the older house next door, where Meho’s wife brought out the sofra and laid out a royal breakfast spread of goat cheese, kajmak, meat, bread and Turkish coffee. I would be welcome back any time, said Meho and then he drove me back down the road, past Sopoćani to the main road which ran through the Sandžak. From there I hitched a ride in a put-together car to Sjenica, another dusty Sandžak crossroads-town famous for its cheese, and from Sjenica I took a bus to a spot in the mountains from where I continued my walk.
Central Sandžak consists of a high upland plain, sparsely wooded, with rolling fields, scattered villages and homesteads and the odd lonely mosque like an exclamation mark in the landscape. It is interesting scenery, recalling some parts of the American West, but fairly monotonous for hiking. The most interesting spots for hiking are in the east, around Sopoćani, where the road rises up to the Sandžak plain, and at the west, where you can take a side road, off the main road, which descends down from the plain, through wooded canyons to the town of Prijepolje and hits Milešova, another medieval monastery, the second most important monastery in the Sandžak.
This was where I was headed. I told the bus driver to drop me off at an unmarked spot on the road, went into a small shop on the side of the road and asked for directions to Prijepolje. A young man indicated a dirt road and this was where I went.
It was nice hiking a dirt road instead of asphalt for a change. The road took me through fields piled with tottering haystacks. There were rustic farm houses and the odd, white-washed mosque puncturing the lush, green landscape as I walked in and out of dense conifer forests. It was funny seeing these mosques in this lush European setting. Wasn’t one was accustomed to thinking of mosques in a desert landscape? After all, as the essayist Essad Bey had written, “Islam is the desert”, and one Ottoman historian I had come across claimed to see inside every bare and unfurnished mosque a reminder “of the vast wastes of the sunlit deserts of Arabia”. Thus, the idea of a mosque in country that recalled Austria seemed somehow inappropriate. It was the same with the very idea of Muslim Slavs. It was not what you expected, and that in my opinion was the attraction of the Sandžak and Muslim Serbia: the incongruity of it all.
Preuzeto sa: http://www.robertrigney.com/2015/11/20/among-serbias-muslims-in-the-sandzak/
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